Monthly Archives: June 2021

Villages out of Time and Place

So this is going to be one of those posts in which I ask a lot of questions and have no answers (I think; maybe I will get to some). I’m trying to work out my own thoughts about a particular place and what it means: writing is one way to do that, as is solicitating the views of others, so blogging is a means to get to meaning. The place in question is Pioneer Village: Salem in 1630, a cluster of structures situated in Forest River Park which was built under the auspices of “architect-antiquarian” George Francis Dow as a representation of first-settlement Salem for the Massachusetts Tercentenary of 1630. The very engaged agricultural entrepreneur, Harlan P. Kelsey, a strong advocate for more energetic urban planning in Salem, undertook the landscape design. There was a grand historical pageant performed at the village, and then another recreation, of the ship Arbella of the Winthrop fleet, set sail for Boston. Pioneer Village was supposed to be a temporary installation, but it was such a popular regional attraction that it became a more permanent one, at the vanguard of outdoor “living history” museums in the United States: its claim to be the first of such museums is based more on interpretive practice than date, as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village opened up in 1929 and the Storrowtown Village Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts also dates to 1930. Over the next few decades, a succession of outdoor history museums opened up across the country, including Colonial Williamsburg and Old Salem in North Carolina (1932 & 1950, respectively) and three additional institutions in Massachusetts alone:  Old Sturbridge Village (1947), Historic Deerfield (1952) and Plimoth Plantation (1957; now Plimoth Patuxet Museums).

Pioneer Village today and in its heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, Historic New England and Digital Commonwealth photographs.

So if you have visited any of these museums as well as Pioneer Village you will immediately notice a dramatic difference in terms of size, scale, and apparent resources and mission. The former are all administered as foundations or corporations with large staffs and budgets; Pioneer Village has for the most part been a municipal initiative run by the City of Salem’s Park and Recreation Commission with the exception of recent brief periods when it was administered by several collaborations of local history and preservation professionals, the House of the Seven Gables, and a local college (not Salem State University, which is located nearby, but rather Gordon College in Wenham). Judging from the succession of newspaper stories dating from the 1930s into the 1960s, Pioneer Village might have been able to sustain itself on proceeds from the gate: it was quite a busy place. But as the popularity and practice of “living history” interpretation began to decline in the later 1970s, it lost its base, perhaps even its rationale. As it has always been a seasonal attraction, the Village has been vulnerable to deterioration and destruction by neglect, weather, fire and vandalism: I believe only about half of the original structures are still standing. The Arbella (which returned to its home “port” after the Boston celebrations) was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1954 and the only period structure, the Ruck House, was destroyed by fire in the 1960s. In 1985, the Park and Recreation Commission voted to dismantle the Village, but the first of a series of restoration and reactivation efforts reopened the site in 1988. From that point on, it has been a case of good intentions but insufficient resources, and now the City has proposed a rather radical plan to “save” Pioneer Village by exchanging its site with that of the turn-of-the-century tuberculosis Camp Naumkeag at Salem Willows. The rationale behind this proposed move is sound on paper—the Salem Willows is on the trolley route and the ballpark and other recreational spaces at Forest River are definitely expansive—but I am wondering if a Salem Willows Pioneer Village will still be Pioneer Village. And I am also wondering what Pioneer Village is. As I said at the outset, I’ve got a lot of questions, but these are the big three:

  1. What is the historical and cultural significance of Pioneer Village?
  2. Is Pioneer Village worth “saving”?
  3. If Pioneer Village, such as it is, is moved to another site, will it still be Pioneer Village, whatever that is?

Significance: To tell you the truth, I’ve never given Pioneer Village much thought. I teach seventeenth-century history, and this site has been in walking distance from my classrooms over my entire career: have or would I ever use it as a teaching resource? No. It was seldom consistently accessible and never in very good shape, and now I have all of the digital teaching tools that I need. I always thought that the Village represented a moment in place and time, and that moment was Salem 1930 rather than Salem 1630. As someone who has dabbled in Salem history here over that last decade or so, Pioneer Village looks to me like the culmination of a long period of overtly sentimental celebration of Salem, commencing with the Centennial of 1876. Generally it is seen as an expression of Colonial Revival culture, and I agree with that, but I also see it as an example of civic pride. Before Salem became Witch City, its leadership and residents were much more focused on productivity than infamy, and I think the Village still represents the former for those who wish the “Salem story” was a bit less focused on the Witch Trials. I like the terms “architectural museum” and “restoration village” used by the architectural historian Edward N. Kaufman, who traces the origins and inspiration for Pioneer Village and its successors to the big nationalist expositions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, commencing with the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris International Exposition of 1867: the latter had several recreated villages, like the “Austrian” and “Russian Peasant”  Villages  below. Like Pioneer Village, these were exhibits built for a specific event. Unlike Pioneer Village, they were dismantled after that event. Americans, including residents of Salem and its region, wanted their “history” stay around for longer.

Austrian and Russian Villages, International Exposition of 1867, Paris.

When you look at Pioneer Village as something that was built (and rebuilt) as an expression of civic pride it takes on the cast of a monument rather than a historical resource, at least for me. Another perspective relates to the history of preservation (or preservation technology in particular), one in which I had never explored before in relation to Pioneer Village. Apparently it was very consequential in demolishing the “Log Cabin Myth” which held that every seventeenth-century European arrival lived in a log cabin à la Lincoln. In his classic book of the same name, Howard Shurtleff observed that they myth was “an American belief that is both deep-seated and tenacious” and credited Dow for refuting it: Mr. Dow included in his reconstructed Salem a number of small framed cottages, each provided with a brick or “catted” chimney, and roofed with thatch. Some were walled with weatherboarding, sheathed with material boards, and the intervening space filled with “nogging”—clay, chopped straw and refuse bricks; others were walled with wattle and daub. This “Salem Pioneer Village” still stands (in 1939, when Shurtleff was writing and 20 years later, when his landmark book was reissued) and has proved far more effective than books in refuting the Log Cabin Myth. All of the contemporary commenters on Pioneer Village really emphasized its traditional, “authentic” construction, and this became another point of civic pride as Salem businesses made comparisons between their own productivity and that of their colonial predecessors in annual programs such as “Early American industries portrayed at the Pioneer’s Village, Salem, Mass.” In 1936, the Hygrade-Sylvania company presented an exhibit on early illumination, while the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company sponsored a demonstration of flax weaving and culture and local druggist John E. Heffernan highlighted seventeenth-century herbal medicines. The theme was very much see how far we have come in the midst of the Depression. The national Chronicle of Early American Industries, founded in 1933 and still in print, referenced Pioneer Village in nearly every issue.

Ok, now I’ve hit academic cruise control and could go on for quite some time: but this isn’t a journal article, it’s a blog post. So I’m going to start wrapping up in relation to my questions.

Significance conclusions: clearly Pioneer Village was significant in its time (1930) and for at least two decades thereafter. I think it’s still significant as an example of how a city uses its history, but I do not think it is an educational resource (bear in mind, I teach college students; early childhood educators might have a different opinion). I really think it’s a monument, like the Bewitched statue downtown, but much, much better in the sense that it seeks to highlight achievement and industry rather than exploit tragedy. I don’t have enough information to comment on its current state of repair and whether the original 1930 buildings could even make the move: because the City of Salem has “preserved” the Village it is now an historic artifact and will be subject to review by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. If the move is undertaken, I hope an expert in preservation technology and/or an architectural historian is consulted.

Should it be saved: yes, but with a clear understanding of what it is and what is it supposed to do. I only see logistical rationales for the move in the public discourse.

Will it still be Pioneer Village in Salem Willows? No. It will be something else entirely: a new Pioneer Village. It could be a hybrid Salem: 1630 and Salem: 2026 if the construction integrity of the original structures is preserved through the move, and new structures built utilizing the evidence and knowledge we have gained over the intervening century. The new Village could be a testament to both the Tercentenary spirit of 1930 and the Salem Quadricentenary spirit of 2026. If that was the aim, it would be nice to have Salem craftsmen, architects, and landscape architects involved in creating (rather than recreating) the new Pioneer Village: successors to George Francis Dow and Harlan Kelsey.

What Salem really needs: not a new Pioneer Village, but a new Salem Museum, which would integrate, interpret, and document ALL of Salem’s history: first settlement, Witch Trials, American and Industrial Revolutions, the experience of the Civil and World Wars,  native American, African-American, Irish American, Polish American, French Canadian and American, and everything and everyone between. Enough of this “siloed history!” This of course would be ultimate Quadricentennial achievement and expression.


The Phillips House

I can’t believe that I’ve been blogging here for eleven+ years and have not featured 1) the only house museum; 2) the only house belonging to Historic New England; and 3) the only house which was (partially) moved to its site on the street where I live, Chestnut Street, before! There are two buildings which are open to the public on this famous street, Hamilton Hall and the Phillips House: the former is most definitely an assembly hall, while the latter is a home, and when you visit it, that will be one of your primary takeaways. Not only will you become familiar with multiple generations of the Phillips family, but also members of their staff (who were apparently never referred to as servants); not only will you see beautiful rooms “above,” but also working spaces “below.” The Phillips House has one of the best preserved historic working kitchens on the street (last used in 1962), which you will not see here, because I spent so much time and took so many pictures on my own personal tour with my former student Tom Miller that my camera was dead by the time I got there. So you must see it for yourself. The Phillips House opened for the season this past weekend: it is open every weekend through October but advance reservations are required.

The Phillips House on Chestnut Street is open! Great to see the flag flying. Tom Miller  opened the door for me on this past Friday, and we commenced a three-hour tour. Tom has been a associated with the house for 13 years, and knows everything about the Phillips house, its contents and inhabitants.

Because the house is a creation of many decades, families and styles, it has a lot to teach visitors, even though its interiors are presented as they were in 1919, several years after the Phillips family had taken possession and completed their renovations. Their fortune was based on Salem commerce, shrewd investments, and advantageous marriages, and they were well-traveled and engaged in society and civic affairs, so we can learn a lot from their stories as well. The story of the house begins with a maritime marriage and a messy divorce: between Elizabeth Derby, daughter of Salem’s wealthiest merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and one of his ship captains, Nathaniel West. Mr. Derby did not approve of the marriage in 1783, but nevertheless he left his daughter an enormous inheritance in his 1799 will, which she used to to build a magnificent country estate just a few miles inland, commissioning the justly-famous Samuel McIntire to undertake much of the design and craftsmanship. After an important reform to Massachusetts divorce law in 1806 allowed women greater property rights in divorce cases involving infidelity on the part of the husband, Elizabeth Derby West sued for divorce and won, in a very public case involving a parade of prostitutes perhaps paid to give evidence against Captain West by her vengeful brothers, with whom he had engaged in fist-to-cuffs down on the docks. Elizabeth moved to Oak Hill permanently and continued to lavish material attention on it until her death in 1814, leaving it to her three daughters with the stipulation that they never let their father have a piece of it. The youngest West daughter, Sarah, died intestate five years later and consequently  her father did indeed inherit a third of the estate, despite his former wife’s wishes. He detached four rooms of the estate and had them moved to Chestnut Street: four miles in two days via teams of oxen and logs. After installing a central hall-connector with Palladian window and doors, he now had a slim but elegant (McIntire!) house. Over the nineteenth century the house doubled in size with a succession of owners, and the Phillips family acquired it in 1911. The cumulative composition is a bit Georgian, a bit Federal, a bit Victorian, and a lot of Colonial Revival, with just a pinch of Gothic.

The house in 1916, with lines marking the original McIntire rooms moved to Chestnut Street. An oxen team moving a structure along State Street in Newburyport for comparison, and the house in the later nineteenth century, all collections of Historic New England.

As you move through the house you are aware that you are entering another architectural era, especially as you move from McIntire front to Colonial Revival rear—somewhat of a pale imitation with an expanded scale. But you’re also busy looking at all the things that tie everything together, the personal belongings of a very grounded though worldly family.

Colonial Revival-ized houses always seem to have or side stairs: the front hall must be wide and open; I seem to recall that this side doorway (the “carriage entrance”) was once in front and is McIntire.

Dinner is set for a small party on the evening of July 30, 1919 in the expansive dining room: part of the extensive additions to the back of the house. No McIntire mantel, but lots of movable decorative detail in the form of serving ware, and one of my very favorite paintings which I somehow forgot was here: Thomas Badger’s Portrait of Thomas Mason (with a squirrel). It was a delight to see it: you can have your Copley boy and squirrel painting, I prefer this Badger.

As I am writing this it is very hot, so I want some ORANGE FAIRY FLUFF. The amazing pantry at the Phillips House, and the Badger!

Upstairs, things are a bit more intimate: bedrooms and bathrooms and Mrs. Phillips’ day room for keeping the household accounts. On the third floor there are guestrooms and staff rooms: a rear staircase descends from the latter to the kitchen. There are really wonderful windows throughout the house, in all shapes and sizes, with great views of Chestnut Street, and more McIntire detail in the front two rooms on the second floor.

Another major painting which “surprised” me in residence at the Phillips House was Marblehead folk artist J.O.J. Frost’s Massey’s Cove ( The Hardships and Sacrifice, Massey’s Cove, Salem 1626) depicting the first European settlement of Salem. It was just wonderful to see it there, hanging in Stevie Phillip’s light-filled, McIntire embellished bedroom with the best views of Chestnut Street in either direction. A less happy surprise, in this most Salem of houses, was a crumpled-up sign for the James Duncan Phillips Library, a library which is, of course, no longer in Salem.

I think I had professorial privilege as Tom showed me EVERYTHING and the standard tour can’t be quite as expansive due to time constraints, but the interpretation of the Phillips House definitely emphasizes the close personal connections between the generations that lived in the house and their staff and this is highlighted by one of the special tours at the house, “The Irish Experience at the Phillips House,” which will be offered on August 5. An annual must-attend event which we all missed last year is the antique car meet, which is on August 8. Vintage cars line the length of Chestnut Street, and the juxtaposition of cars and houses is more than instagram-worthy, believe me!


Decorating the “Little Room”

Happy June! I’m going to transition into a summer of lighter fare here: houses, gardens, non-academic books, events with people! In my contrary fashion, I’m going to start this transition with a spooky short story: one of the spookiest and shortest stories I’ve ever read. Madeline Yale Wynne’s “The Little Room” was first published in the August 1895 issue of Harper’s Magazine and then in The Little Room and Other Stories (1906). It’s a story about memories and perceptions, with a lot of ambiguity balanced by (in contrary fashion) very precise details, material details.

I’ll let you read it for yourself (it’s right here), but the basic problem is whether a certain space in an old Vermont farmhouse inhabited by two old maids was in fact a china cupboard or a “little room” complete with a green Dutch door exiting to the outside and a couch “covered with blue chintz—Indian chintz—some that had been brought over by an old Salem sea-captain as a ‘venture'” and given to one of the ladies when she was at school in Salem (yes, there is always a Salem connection). This chintz was described in more detail by those who saw the little room, and not the cupboard: it was “the regular blue stamped chintz, with the peacock figure on it. The head and body of the bird were in profile, while the tail was full front view behind it.” There were also hanging shelves with leather-bound books in the room, from which one bright red volume stood out, titled the Ladies’ Album, which “made a bright break between the other thicker books.” On the lowest shelf was a pink seashell, “lying on a mat of made of balls of red shaded worsted.” Not just a mat: a mat made of balls of red shaded worsted! Can we have any doubt that such a room, such a couch, such a shell, such a mat existed? Yes, we can. The room also contained several bright brass objects, a braided rag rug, and was wallpapered with “a beautiful flowered paper—roses and morning glories in a wreath on light blue ground.” How can this room not have existed? Wynne ensures that we will never know whether it did or not, but at least it can exist in some digital form with a bit of foraging and filtering.

The green Dutch door:

On the walls: I couldn’t find the wallpaper so precisely described by Wynne so I altered the color a bit from a 1960s floral paper on Etsy (which is the best place to find vintage wallpaper) and a watercolor possibly by John Hancock from the Carnegie Museum of Art (this is a lovely painting and I’ve really mucked it up with my filtering so make sure you see the original).

On the Settee: this first fabric looks very “stamped” but it’s really going to clash with my wallpaper, the second is softer but would still make for a very vibrant room!

On the Shelves: Wynne refers to hanging shelves very particularly, not a bookcase. I think of hanging shelves as more contemporary, but there are examples from the 18th and 19th century: the shelves below look appropriate to me, although with everything on them I think they would have to be bigger. These Waverly novels look weighty, but you can see how a slim red Ladies’ Album might pop out: perhaps it was Ladies Home Journal (which used red extravagantly) rather than Ladies Album? I’ve got lots of brass objects for this digital shelf/room (although maybe I should have polished them), and I stole the ultimate shell from my husband’s study. No mat though: I looked far and wide for a mat made of balls of shaded red worsted with no success, so the shell is sitting on a throw (but I used a “faded” filter). And finally, an amazing braided rag rug, which (hopefully) will pull this very interesting room together.

So that’s my “little room,” which was fun to put together. While this little story of a little room is an amusing diversion, it’s really not just about material stuff: it’s about the truth, and that awful scenario when two people, or three or four, or more, cannot decide or agree on what the truth is. This little story is a lot more timely now than when I first read it, maybe twenty years ago: then I think we all knew what the truth was.


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